There has been some tut-tutting, head-shaking and general adverse comment in the more intellectual British newspapers this past week following the news that the former butler of the newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch is about to publish his reminiscences of life with the boss. Mixed with a certain quiet schadenfreude over the king of the tabloid exposure being hoist by his own petard, so to speak, the consensus has been that such things are not done, or at least should not be done, and that buttling has sadly come down in the world since the grand days described by P G Wodehouse.
It’s always Reginald Jeeves that’s mentioned in these articles, usually coupled with the name of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, despite the indubitable fact that Jeeves was not a butler, but a manservant, gentleman’s gentleman or valet. Those genuinely holding the job of butler in the Wodehouse canon, such as Silversmith, Bulstrode, Beech, Keggs (and several dozen others) are rotund and magnificently dignified, often with a magisterial presence that was much more stately than their masters’. As Ukridge says of Oakshott, butler to his sister Julia: “Meeting him in the street and ignoring the foul bowler hat he wore on his walks abroad, you would have put him down as a bishop in mufti or, at the least, a plenipotentiary at one of the better courts”.
The butler in the medieval household was nothing like so exalted. He was the yeoman servant in charge of the beer cellar and of the buttery, from where he served out the beer. Since then, he has both literally and figuratively come up in the world.
His name derives from the old French bouteillier, the cup-bearer or the one in charge of the bottles. Our bottle and the French equivalent both come from the medieval Latin butticula, a diminutive of buttis, a cask, which is also the origin of our word butt for a large wooden container for liquid; the beer cellar in medieval times would have contained wooden casks, not glass bottles. So the buttery, therefore, had originally nothing to do with butter, but was the place of the butts; only later was the word extended to mean somewhere that provisions in general were stored, perhaps because people did mistakenly make that association.
Through a complicated process that had to do with the loss of gentlemen servants and changes in social organisation, the butler slowly rose to be in charge not only of the buttery, but also of the ewery (where the napkins and basins for washing and shaving were kept) and the pantry (which did supply the bread, butter, cheese and other basic provisions), and later still he took over the cellarer’s duties of looking after the wine, which indeed became one of his principal duties. By the middle of the nineteenth century, he’d reached his full flowering as head of the male domestic servants, in larger households sometimes having a whole suite of rooms dedicated to his various functions. In the twentieth century, social change meant he almost vanished as a breed. In our modern age the butler has been reinvented as a kind of Swiss-Army- knife, all-purpose household manager, often the sole permanent servant, as much required to organise his master’s travel arrangements and supervise redecorating the house as he is to serve the wine at formal dinners.
Butler is one of those words which has survived almost unchanged in the language for several hundred years, but whose meaning has progressively changed along with his duties. But as few of us encounter a specimen of the breed these days, even fewer than in his heyday, our understanding of the word is stuck in a fantasy world of Wodehousian invention.